I used Google Translate to translate "learn" to Chinese, and the first result was:


I noted that another suggested option was:

So, I wonder: what's the difference between the two results?

  • 1
    Generally, for the meaning "learn", 學 is usually considered as a transitive verb, 學習 is either a transitive or an intransitive verb. For example, A: 你在幹什麽? B: 我在學習。 Here, "我在學" would sound a little weird. However, A: 你有在學習嗎? B: 我有在學。 is OK. I have to say it's subtle and it's difficult to summarize a set of rules ... – Stan Jul 19 '13 at 18:34
  • This question has been already asked so for now I've marked it as duplicate. Please use the search function next time to make sure someone else didn't ask it first. The character are simplified and traditional, but the use should be the same. :) If somebody thinks there is a difference between the two questions that I've missed, just let me know. – Alenanno Jul 20 '13 at 16:02

Many Chinese words have both a 1-character and 2-character form

For example:

eat = 吃 = 吃饭

study = 学 = 学习

lion = 狮 = 狮子

coal = 煤 = 煤炭

Their usage is constrained by grammar and prosody

For example:

Ungrammatical: 我喜欢吃

Grammatical: 我喜欢吃饭

Bad prosody ("sounds weird"): 我在学

Good prosody: 我在学习

Sometimes the 2-character form is an expansion of the 1-character word

  1. Dummy object for a verb (allows a transitive verb to be used intransitively):

    • 吃(饭) <-- Grammatically 饭 is the object, but as a whole it means "eat", not "eat rice". The object is a "dummy" object.
    • 跑(步)
    • 说(话)
  2. Two characters meaning something similar (you can pick the form that works best for prosodic reasons):

    • 学(习)
    • 煤(炭)
  3. One of the characters is a "dummy" word that means almost nothing (for making nouns into 2-character words for prosodic reasons mostly):

    • 本(子), 狮(子), 棒(子), ... almost anything ending in 子
    • (老)虎
    • 盖(儿) ...almost anything ending with 儿
    • 木(头)

Sometimes the 1-character form is a shortening of the 2-character word

  1. The word was originally a mono-morpheme polysyllabic word:
    • 蝴蝶 (you'll sometimes see "蝶" used to stand in for "butterfly" in compounds)

Prosodic considerations in Chinese

I've alluded briefly to "prosodic considerations" in Chinese. But how are you supposed to know when to use the 2-character vs the 1-character version of a word?

  1. Sometimes grammar chooses for you:

    • 我要吃饭 (intransitive) vs 我要吃冰淇淋 (transitive)
  2. When you're making compound nouns, it's usually the one-character form from each word (or even further reduction)

    • 北京大学 -> 北大
    • 高速铁路 -> 高铁

The following assertions are supported empirically, but they are not absolute

  1. [N N] is almost never 1+2:

    • 1+1 鸡蛋
    • 2+1 商业区
    • 2+2 人民广场
  2. [V O] is almost never 2+1

    • 1+1 请客
    • 1+2 丢面子
    • 2+2 学习经济
  3. There are exceptions to every rule!

    • 我喜欢你 (喜欢 is basically always 2-characters, regardless of the object)

To address your question, let's look at 学习. 学 means learn; 习 means practice. As noted above, this is a case of expansion where both characters mean something similar. 学 and 学习 are identical in meaning, but one may be chosen over the other for prosodic reasons.

(论语): 学而时习之,不亦说乎? Isn't it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned?

| improve this answer | |
  • @NS.X. I replaced 读书 with 跑步 (which is definitely V+dummy object). I clarified what I mean by "dummy" objects. I was completely wrong about 盖头 (I was looking for something with a -头 suffix and picked 盖头; no idea it was a veil whoops). – Stumpy Joe Pete Jul 20 '13 at 0:27
  • @NS.X. I disagree about 蝴蝶. If you think that 蝴 and 蝶 existed as independent words and were later combined, please provide evidence (use in classical works would be a good start). Also, the these pages do not lend credence to the idea that 连绵词 are multi-morpheme. The examples and explanations (that I can understand) point to 连绵词="polysyllabic monomorphemic words". So I'm sticking with 蝶 = 蝴蝶 - 蝴, and not 蝴蝶 = 蝴 + 蝶 – Stumpy Joe Pete Jul 20 '13 at 0:46
  • Hmm. Actually 读书 would have been fine. You can say 读英文课 = study English, and 读书 = study (in general, 书 as dummy object). I'll leave it out though, as 读 and 念 confusingly mean both "read aloud" and "study", even though I mean "study" in this case for both transitive and intransitive. – Stumpy Joe Pete Jul 20 '13 at 0:56
  • @NS.X. Interesting! 1. Certainly don't want to confuse anyone, so I'll leave 读书 out. 2. Agree to disagree :) – Stumpy Joe Pete Jul 20 '13 at 1:10
  • There was a discussion moved to chat. The issues were already addressed in an update. – NS.X. Jul 20 '13 at 1:50

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